Immediate college enrollment rates may be on the rise, but high schools have not changed their curriculum to better prepare students for postsecondary education. The high school-to-college pipeline is responsible for 30% of college students dropping out during their first year for a variety of reasons. By year six, 56% of students have dropped out. The majority of students do not graduate in four-years, whether it is due to changing majors, dropping courses, taking time off, or changing expectations of curriculum. However, rigor of academics is not the main problem, but rather appropriate college advising options and access to mental health resources and social support. Despite the stigma of leaving college early, help for college dropouts is available to get back on their feet, re-evaluate what they envision for themselves, and form concrete plans to actualize their dreams considering mental health challenges they may continue to face.

Why Dropping Out Can Be an Appropriate Option for Struggling Students

Young adults are funneled into college to prepare for their future but are given a two-year trial run of core classes before they have to declare a major. The way the system is set up allows for identity exploration and changing plans, yet it suggests that it understands freshman shouldn’t be expected to commit to long term goals. The first year is a particularly difficult transition for students moving away from their families and often their hometowns, where they are suddenly forced to become independent and make new friends. The New York Times reports that, “many teenagers go away to college only to recognize — either because of their grades, their habits, their mental health or all of the above — that they’re not ready for college life.”

One of the main reasons people drop out of school is because they are struggling with medical or mental health issues and cannot access appropriate support through the school or community. The pressure of the college environment, both socially and academically, can contribute to increased stress levels and hopelessness. Additionally, college students are the most vulnerable population to sexual assault and addiction issues. If you feel that you are in crisis mode, you do not have enough social support at your school, or that time away from classes would be beneficial for your well-being, taking time off from college or looking for alternative options to traditional postsecondary education can be a good option.

Other common reasons for dropping out include lack of motivation, family emergencies, financial aid, change in career aspirations, college preparedness, lack of college value, and employment.

Alternative Paths for College Dropouts

The William T. Grant Foundation published a report on the “Forgotten Half,” which highlighted the prevalence of young adults who did not take a traditional college route, not just those in poverty, and ways to support them in fighting stigma and inequality and finding resources for personal development. When they published the initial report in 1988, “perhaps 1 in 10 college students could be characterized as wanting some form of mental health treatment. Now, that number is 1 in 3 and on the rise.” Whether you plan on returning to college when you feel more emotionally prepared or are looking for opportunities that are more aligned with your passions are desires, there are more opportunities than you might assume available in the community to help you rediscover what you are passionate about.

  • Focus on your mental health. Ask for help. Learn more about your triggers, coping skills, and communication style. Find the right medication, support group, or therapist. Getting help for mental health struggles is an important step in transitioning to adulthood and independent living. Prioritizing your mental health helps you to succeed in your personal life, social relationships, and career.
  • Show yourself radical compassion. Remind yourself that you did the best you could with the support that you had while you were in school. College is overwhelming for most students. It is not a reflection of your capability to handle it. You are not a failure for taking time off or deciding not to return to school. You are not a disappointment to yourself or your parents. You deserve to take care of your needs and put your health and well-being first.
  • Take a gap semester or year. Dropping out does not have to be a permanent decision, but time away from school helps you to better understand what it is you want to do. Take advantage of time off to take care of yourself and to challenge yourself to rebuild confidence and motivation to go where you want to go. Students who have taken a gap year have higher graduation rates and better grades than students who jump right into college.
  • Look for transitional programs that will offer support and guidance in deciding where you want to go next. While the future may feel overwhelming, you are at a critical time in your life to pay attention to what you need and to decide how to better meet those needs.
  • Continue learning in some capacity. Learn a new skill. Pick up a new hobby. Read about topics you’re interested in. When you are not learning things assigned to you, you have more time to learn about yourself and what you like.
  • Decide long term goals, both career wise and regarding your personal development. Dropping out of college does not have to disrupt future goals, but it may reroute them. It is natural to feel directionless and unprepared for the future during this transition, but you are not alone.

blueFire PulsaR can help

blueFire PulsaR offers co-ed adventure-based wilderness therapy for young adults 18-28 struggling with the transition to adulthood.  Our students struggle with emotional and behavioral challenges, including anxiety, depression, motivation, trauma, and substance abuse that have affected their ability to achieve success in school and in other areas of their life. We help college dropouts rediscover their inner spark that fuels their motivation and confidence to pursue their interests.


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